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Carter's "kick Me" Sign

Thirty years ago today, Jimmy Carter delivered the worst major speech of a modern president. The "Crisis of Confidence" speech (often described as the "Malaise" speech) was by turns mawkish, hectoring, self-pitying, maudlin, self-righteous, undisciplined (the address opened with a string of nineteen quotations from critics of his presidency). It wildly exaggerated the nation's problems (the "erosion of confidence in the future" was "a fundamental threat to American democracy," one that would also "destroy the social and the political fabric of America") and proposed a series of absurdly ambitious policies and goals (according to the president, "20 percent of our energy [would come] from solar power by the year 2000"), not one of which was realized. Carter's delivery was halting, awkward, abrasive, excruciating to watch (see for yourself). The editors of this magazine were quite right to comment shortly after the speech, "The past two weeks will be remembered as the period when President Jimmy Carter packed it in, put the finishing touches on a failed presidency." (And this was still four months before the hostages were taken in Tehran.)

And yet, one of Carter's speechwriters (Gordon Stewart) would now have us believe that the "Crisis of Confidence" was a success. Don't believe it for a second. The speech was a "kick me" sign Carter affixed to his own back just as Ronald Reagan was coming up behind him. It provided a perfect set-up to what would be Reagan's most potent line of attack against his opponent during the 1980 campaign -- that the Carter administration was one of "weakness, indecision, mediocrity, and incompetence."

Quite so. And never more so than on the evening of July 15, 1979.